North of Cusco lies the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The picturesque villages of this valley—Pisac, Urubamba, and Ollantaytambo—are all situated on the shores of the Urubamba River, which crosses the valley south to north. The valley is among the most important historical places in South America because of its strategic setting and fertile lands.
The Sacred Valley flourished when long ago it became the center of food production for the Inca people. The important archeological site of Moray, with its rounded terraces, is a mysterious place where the Incas grew everything from corn to fruits, vegetables, cocoa plants, and avocados.
The valley was also an important fortress because of its strategic setting north of Cusco. Within the valley one finds ceremonial temples, palaces, and spectacular ancient strongholds.
Tradition and culture remain important for those living here, so it is easy for visitors to become immersed in the area's rich history and beautiful landscapes.
At 2900 meters above sea level and located just 33 km from Cusco, the beautiful little village of Pisac is the highest village in the Sacred Valley. The town is full of history and is famous for its indigenous market. Built over an Incan settlement, the village was founded by Viceroy Toledo, a Spanish conquistador.
A large section of the market in Pisac is dedicated to tourist-oriented souvenir stalls, where visitors can find weavings, jewelry, shawls, hats, musical instruments, alpaca products, ceramics, etc. The handicraft market is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is an excellent market to purchase gifts for family and friends back home.
On Sundays, visitors enjoy a more authentic and colorful experience when the local Quechua communities sell goods on the main square. The Quechua dress in colorful clothing, giving the market an authentic feel. It's worth a visit, but be warned, this is a tourist hot spot, so be prepared for savvy vendors, tour buses, and tour groups. If you visit on a Sunday, you can also participate in a Quechua Mass with the locals and mayors of the regions.
In addition, the Archeological Park of Pisac is full of fascinating ruins and terraces. There visitors can explore a military fortress, observatories, and numerous other polished stone constructions. One can also experience a breathtaking view from the park over the upper part of the Sacred Valley. The Archeological Park is about 400m above the village of Pisac; a local taxi can take you there.
One of the best places to visit in the Sacred Valley is Ollantaytambo, which holds the most original and best-preserved Inca and pre-Inca ruins in all of Peru. Many of the buildings in this village date back to Inca times; for this reason, Ollantaytambo has come to be known as "the Living Inca City."
Most trains to Machu Picchu depart from Ollantaytambo; therefore, Ollantaytambo can be a bustling place during the day.
Two of the most interesting and beautiful destinations in the Sacred Valley are the salt basins of Maras and the round terraces of Moray.
Pre-Incan cultures built the salt mines of Maras. In the traditional understanding, they are not mines at all but salt “pounds” or “pans.” There are thousands of these pounds in total, all of which are still in use today by different members of the local community, where individual families own the pounds and produce salt from them. Maras is among the top ten largest salt mines in the world and is a fantastic sight.
The Incan ruins of Moray were designed similar to an amphitheater. There is no certain explanation for their creation and use, and Moray remains a mysterious place. One theory is that the Incas used these ruins as a laboratory to experiment with growing different combinations of plant species.
You can visit Moray and Maras together on an organized tour or with a private vehicle, as they are not very far from each other.
The Sacred Valley is a must-see destination during your visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu. It is possible to visit all of these places in a single day from Cusco, but that makes for a long day. I recommend visiting the Sacred Valley the day before traveling to Machu Picchu and staying overnight in one of the many hotels near Ollantaytambo.